Anyone who has been to Scotland would agree that the country embodies an understated, self-confident mentality true to its agrarian roots and hardy inhabitants. Largely rural and natural, the ales of Scotland symbolize both the people and landscape, which can be at once rugged and pastoral. As Scotland lies in the UK, one would assume that its ales should reflect the characteristics of the historic brews of Great Britain. This would dismiss their diverse nurture, shaped by factors both native and foreign. Scottish ales are a hybrid of sorts, with largely indigenous ingredients lending finesse to brews that otherwise owe their profile to the disparate brewing cultures of England and Germany. They are top-fermented (albeit patiently), and truly ales in that respect, but are cold-conditioned in the manner of lager brewers of Bavaria and Bohemia. The result is a deep, rich color, and a smooth, unassuming depth of character. Like many representative beer styles, they have taken a long, wending road to their destination, but in the end, are a product of those things that ultimately work best with medium and environment.
Seminal Scottish Ale
The cradle of brewing is generally attributed to Mesopotamia around 4000 BC. There is, however, archaeological confirmation of concomitant brewing in Scotland. The evidence comes from Fife, north of Edinburgh, and Kinloch, on the Isle of Rhum, and the tribal inhabitants that roamed Europe at the time. Though little is known about these early brews beyond the artifacts, there is some anecdotal evidence surrounding the brewing of heather ales and mead by the Picts a couple of millennia ago, prior to Roman influx.
Legend has it that the closely-guarded heather ale recipe went to the grave with a Pictish elder, in Braveheart fashion, who resisted divulging the recipe even in the face of death.
Tall tales aside, and like most of Medieval and Middle Age Europe, brewing in Scotland was the domain of monasteries up until the 15th century. Shortly thereafter, public sale of secular beer began to take hold, with the majority of the brewing being done at home by women. Eventually, brewing became less domestic and more the interest of entrepreneurs, whose business interests helped the burgeoning commercial brewing industry grow to unparalleled levels during the 18th century. Edinburgh was the Scottish epicenter, rivaling London and Munich in stature. Scottish beers were highly-regarded around Europe and points beyond, and were exported to faraway ports in Canada and South America.
The zenith of Scottish brewing ended during the 19th century. The first test to the Scottish markets came from England, whose unfettered production and export of porter challenged the Scots. Later, English-perfected pale ales usurped locally-brewed beers in popularity. Finally, Central European braumeisters refined their revolutionary pale lagers and took yet another bite out of the Scottish ale province. Each time, the Scots adapted and persevered, either by hiring foreign brewers to produce those same beers in Scotland, or by learning to make them themselves.
This resilience and versatility proved valuable from a survival, if not dominating, standpoint, in that Edinburgh became perhaps the most eclectic brewing center in the world. At one point they were producing porters, stouts, lagers, brown ales, and bitters, as well as their own unique Scottish ales. This was aided by the diversity of water hardness in Edinburgh, each well lending a helping hand to individual beer styles. Soon enough, things settled down, and regional pride endeared people to their country’s beers, with the Scots concentrating on their own version of ale.
What then, makes Scottish ales different from their counterparts to the south? The answer lies in the irony that they employ many of the same ingredients, but have craftily waged a symbiotic relationship with their distinctive climate, which approximates the distant environs of Bavaria. Scotland is famous for its barley, both northern whiskey, and southern ale varieties. The two overlap agriculturally, but the southern is of the same stock used in English and Irish ales. It is rich and substantial, even in its most lightly-kilned form, cementing the foundation for Scottish brews.
Scots maltsters were often the brewers and distillers. This intimate connection to their goods ultimately manifests itself in the ensuing production of the malt. It should come as no surprise that Scottish ales are malty in their essence, a proud platform of both craft and art. Oats, and to a lesser degree, wheat, are other crops that grow easily in the sometimes cool, forbidding climate. Each will, on occasion, find their way into a grist, lending a creaminess and full-bodied impression.
The color in a Scottish ale comes from judicious use of dark malt. Today, caramel malt is more common in the grist, but traditionally a small amount of roasted, unmalted barley is used for color and a hint of smokiness. Thrifty brewers of yore roasted the unsprouted, or slack, barley and used it in the mash, usually amounting to one to two percent on average.
There is historical evidence that Scottish beers were mashed at a slightly higher temperature than British beers. This would also add a fuller, more dextrinous wort, a characteristic that is evident in modern Scottish ales. Unlike the English, Scots were employing the practice of sparging, rinsing the grain while running off the wort, instead of the repeated drain and mash “parti-gyle” method to produce multiple brews from a single mash. As the sparge method filled the kettle slower, and resulted in prolonged contact with the fire, the wort acquired a more caramelized character. Again, this is yet another contemporary characteristic of the Scots ware, as it is achieved through a prolonged boil.
Scottish ales are lightly hopped brews, with little hop aroma. As it is near impossible to grow hops in Scotland, they resisted using them longer than most other brewers, and when they did use them, did so sparingly because of the cost. To avoid more shipping costs, hops were stored, and aged hops, which lost some of its bittering qualities were also used. This is yet again manifested in the modern ales. English varieties are used.
The cool climate of Scotland necessitated the selection of a yeast that could ferment at temperatures more like that of a lager beer. Still an ale yeast, it worked leisurely and left the beers somewhat under-fermented. Storage in cellars that approximate the lagering caves in Bavaria imparted a distinct lager-like character: smooth, full, and malty, with a dryish finish.
The brews that we know of as Scottish ales (as opposed to Scotch ales or wee heavys of 6.5% ABV or higher), are usually between 2.5% and 5.5% ABV. They are often referred to as 60 shilling (light), 70 shilling (heavy), and 80 shilling (export), a remnant of the designation based upon their invoice price per barrel, based on strength. The terms roughly equate to English ordinary, special, and extra special bitter, respectively. They are deep amber to full copper, full-bodied, and may have a bit of smoky character.
Though Scottish ales are dark and luscious, they are every bit the session beer that mild, brown ale, and bbitter are. Gentle enough to quaff a few, yet soothing enough for cool nights, Scottish ales kiss the entire spectrum of fulfillment. Mellow beers need not be boring, and, like Scotland itself, their ales can mesmerize.
Orkney Dark IslandABV: 4.6
Tasting Notes: From the Orkney Island town of Quoyloo, Dark Island is a deep mahogany sporting a rich, beige crown. Campfire, roasted barley, and oak are evident in the nose. The flavor is a fairly peaty, with an earthy note. Malt, chocolate, and cherry, backed up by a light sweetness wrap it up. The dry, roasty finish lingers with a touch of hop bitterness.
Broughton Black Douglas AleABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: Brewed in the Scottish Borders, Black Douglas is dark red-brown, with a fluffy tan head. Molasses and roast malt, with a wisp of peat are present in the aroma. The flavor is spicy with smoky phenol, and a nice background of dark caramel and fruit. The finish is dry and slightly sharp, owing to a decent hop smack and the roasted barley.
Belhaven St. Andrews AleABV: 4.6
Tasting Notes: From the Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar, and the “Home of Golf” (***isn’t that St Andrews?). Copper pour with an off-white head. The aroma is laden with faint almond, woody, and wine notes and a light whiff of hops. Medium-bodied, featuring mellow caramel and cherry hints over the tranquil, soft malt. The finish is dryish and nutty.
Caledonian 80 ShillingABV: 4.1
Tasting Notes: From Edinburgh, Caledonian 80 Shilling pours full bronze with a lacy foam. Nuts and fruit grace the aroma, along with some peat. The taste is berry and caramel with a suggestion of roast, toffee, and chocolate. The hops are quite noticeable, with a freshness that most Scottish ales don’t have. The rich finish is silky and creamy.